Olivia Langton (nèe Forsyth) vs Mail & Guardian

Complainant: Olivia Langton

Lodged by: Olivia Langton

Article: Scant sauce in ‘honeypot’ memoir – An ex-police agent who masqueraded as a student activist has dished the dirt, but it isn’t very dirty

Author of article: Phillip de Wet

Date: 1 September 2015

Respondent: Mail & Guardian

Complaint

Langton is complaining about a front-page headline in the Mail & Guardian of 31 July 2015, The apartheid spy who shagged almost everyone, and a story on page 7, headlined Scant sauce in ‘honeypot’ memoir – An ex-police agent who masqueraded as a student activist has dished the dirt, but it isn’t very dirty.

She complains that:

·         both headlines and the story made untrue, unfair, denigratory and sexist allegations, calculated to vilify her;

·         only the front-page headline and the first two paragraphs of the story were published on its website – compounding the matter; and

·         the newspaper did not ask her for comment.

In later correspondence, she includes the wording of the M&G’s posters in her complaint.

The text

The text, written by Phillip de Wet, was about Langton’s memoir, Agent 407: A South African Spy Breaks Her Silence. The journalist wrote that many people at Rhodes University had slept with Langton. For example: “When Forsyth chaired a mass meeting to expose the prevalence of police spies on the campus, nobody blinked an eye (she was a spy herself, operating under-cover). And sex was the go-to metaphor when it came to betrayal and intelligence infiltration because, as one participant now puts it, there was rather a lot of it going around.”

De Wet said there would be two groups of people keen to read the book when released in August – “[those]checking to see whether they were kissed and told on, and those looking to see who of their comrades can be made fun of for having fallen prey to the apartheid honeypot.” He remarked that both groups would be disappointed.

In her book Langton reportedly wrote, “I was forbidden to have any affairs with the enemy. The honeypot role was reserved for sources who were not actual members of the force, but paid informants.”

Yet, De Wet stated that the no-sex promise was “mercifully broken” with the revelation that sex did play a role in her journey from apartheid spy to ANC collaborator-cum-detainee and back to apartheid apparatchik again, “just as the salacious 1980s gossip had had it”. He added that the details were scant and her partners (“her initially repellent first spymaster, an ANC member in exile, and a one-time editor of this newspaper”) were relatively unimportant.

The arguments

Langton says any newspaper must be in breach of the Press Code if it attacks any woman by means of false sexual slurs. She denies that she was a “honeypot” (that could be interpreted as having sex for information) and that she has “shagged almost everybody”.

She also objects to the portrayal of her book as a “kiss and tell”, as it deals with much more serious issues.

Monare says the text was a review of Langton’s book, which by its very nature relies on subjective opinion, and argues that it was presented as such.

He argues that a reasonable reader, especially of a paper such as the M&G, would have deduced that the report was an honest, fair review that complied with the Code.

He notes that Langton herself makes such a deduction in her argument as she employed the term “reviewer” several times in reference to De Wet.

“Therefore, allowing authors to lodge complaints against reviews, critiques, and commentaries can only mean that artists, writers and performers of public arts can never be critiqued. We would contend that the drafters of the code, its principles and values, never intended such a meaning.”

The deputy editor also argues that Langton sought out the public spotlight through her book, making her a public rather than private figure.  “[T]therefore, [she]cannot choose how the public or her critics react to a book published and distributed for public consumption. [She] needs to accept and deal with the consequences of playing in the public arena.”

Regarding the front-page headline, Monare says this was a play on Jay Roach’s 1999 Austin Powers film The Spy who Shagged me. “We need to caution against any literal translation of the phrase.”

He also attests it is common cause that Langton betrayed, at different times, her employers in the Security Branch, her comrades in the anti-apartheid struggle at university, and the ANC. “Details of such betrayals, and their interpretation as such, are both contained in the book in question and were independently verified by the Mail & Guardian.”

The deputy editor concludes that, at various points in her career, Langton was in bed with different sides in the anti-apartheid struggle. This was reflected in the review. “The headline in question is therefore both true and an accurate reflection of the article. [Langton’s] attempt to put a different interpretation on her actions does not take away historical facts. Therefore, we submit that our headline complied with section 10.1 of the code in that it gave ‘a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question’.”

About the use of the word “honeypot” in the headline on page 7 Monare argues, “In contemporaneous press coverage circa 1988 the subject was repeatedly referred to as a ‘honeypot’, and the designation has been used since… [We] submit that such reference, given the historical context, cannot be disputed as a matter of fact but as a matter of interpretation.”

He adds that Langton cannot be the sole interpreter of her own actions. “Therefore, section 5.1 (of the Press Code) cannot be applicable in this instance, as the accusations of sexism are diminished by the fact that reference to [her]sexual activities is a historical fact and not our invention.”

The deputy editor says the majority of instances referred to in press coverage at the time are not readily available online (as the internet did not yet exist), but a representative sample may be found at: http://www.armsdeal-vpo.co.za/articles05/forgive.html. “The article extensively examines the perceptions around sex in the gathering of intelligence, making the headline both true and an accurate – if not a full – reflection of the article.”

He concludes, “We are also prepared to present witnesses, if need be, who were [Langton’s] peers at the time to give account of such context to illustrate the usage of words that she interpreted as sexual slurs. The M&G adheres to the values of non-sexism, non-racialism and other values protected and enshrined in the constitution and the code. We exercised due care when repeating historical facts that were in the public domain at the time, with due consideration to relevance and public interest, mainly triggered by the publication of [her]book.”

Monare denies that the review portrayed the book as a “kiss and tell” memoir, stating that this conclusion was a subjective reflection of the review of the book. “Once again we submit that the code does not allow an author of a book to take away the reviewer’s freedom to critique his/her work.”

He denies any malice in the review. “Again, [the]author of the book cannot attach motive to a reviewer’s comments about her work. This will offend the principle of fair comment and freedom to critique content of art as intended by the values of the code.”

On the “I did not sleep with Olivia Forsyth” badge, Monare submits that Langton, through the publication of her book, gave the newspaper the key to unlock the archives. “It would be disingenuous, dishonest and an attempt to suppress and distort history to ignore such facts, no matter how unfair or painful [she]may find them. We have presented the historical context of the report and the balance required by Section 2.2 (of the Press Code).”

Regarding the complaint that the newspaper did not ask Langton for comment, Monare says local publishers informed the newspaper that she would not be immediately available for an interview. “Be that as it may, we confirm that no formal approach was made, no formal questions put to any representative, and no attempt made to reach the subject by means other than through her local agents.”

However, he argues that the review in question was based on a thorough reading of Langton’s book. “The book is also extensively quoted. This satisfies the requirement of section 2.5 (of the Press Code, which states that a subject of critical reportage should be asked for comment and, if not possible, the newspaper should state it was not able to get such comment).

“As such we did indeed seek the views of the subject, and reflected those views in line with acceptable practices in literary review.”

Monare also argues it would be untenable to interpret the Code in such a way that it would require further and direct consultation with the author of a book (or document, or other work) prior to publication when there are no facts in dispute, simply because the resulting article is critical in nature. “Such requirements would render any literary review impossible.”

He concludes that their posters, like the headline, did not mislead the public and gave a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report in question.

In her reply to the newspaper’s response, Langton says Monare largely ignored the basis of her complaint, and that he seemingly largely depended on two defenses, namely that the text was a review, and therefore the Press Code did not demand the normal tests of accuracy and fairness of a news report; and that it is true that she had been a “honeypot”, using sex as part of her spying activities.

She submits an e-mail from the editor suggesting changes to the text of an article she had been invited to write in response to De Wet’s piece. “You will see the Mail & Guardian was keen to change ‘so-called review’ to ‘account’ and ‘reviewer’ to reporter’. Clearly the editor was, at the very least, confused about the nature of the piece.”

Langton adds that the article complained of was on the front page and on page 7, which is a news page, set in the typography of news pages and removed from the book reviews carried in the Lifestyle section. “No label was attached to mark it is a review.”

She argues there is nothing in the Press Code that says reviews or comment are excluded from the rules of accuracy.

Langton says the article concentrated on historical speculation about her which she has repeatedly denied and for which there is no evidence. “I struggle to follow the conclusion… that I somehow make the deduction that the report is  ‘an honest, fair review’ because I say my book is neither a ‘kiss and tell’ nor [a]‘honeypot memoir’ while ignoring my absolutely clear statement that I was not a honeypot, unambiguous enough for any reasonable reader.”

About the badge stating I didn’t sleep with Olivia Forsyth, Langton says the repetition of a lie does not make it true.

She attests that the story Monare refers me to does not say what the deputy editor purports it to say.

Langton adds the deputy editor’s argument that the front-page headline is a journalistic play on words and should not be taken literally contrasts with his later confirmation that it does indeed give an accurate reflection of the article on page 7 to which it refers.

She concludes: “The idea that I am suggesting that the Press Code should be used to prevent criticism of artistic works is ridiculous. This is the only article I have responded to because in my view it is shabby journalism of the lowest order trying to pass itself as fair comment. Trying to portray my complaint as an author complaining about a bad review is blustering.”

Analysis

Different rules apply to reviews/comment than to news – which is why the Press Code has a separate section devoted to “comment” (Section 7).

My adjudication of this complaint therefore rests first and foremost on the question of whether the text was a review, or whether it was rather presented as news (albeit with comment, which is germane to the M&G).

At first sight, I thought the text was more of a news story than a review, as there was no indication that it was the latter, and the text was not published on an opinion page.

However, upon reading the text I realized that it was indeed a review (coupled with comment and context, as any good review should be).

Having been persuaded that the text was a review of Langton’s book, it follows that I need to allow the reviewer to express his opinion. I remind myself of Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron’s judgement in the case of McBride vs. The Citizen, April 2011: “Criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it expresses an honestly held opinion, without malice, on a matter of public interest on facts that are true.”

This largely dove-tails with Section 7 of the Press Code.

It follows that the headline was in order, and that the newspaper did not have to ask Langton for comment.

I cannot adjudicate on the posters, as I do not have the exact wording.

Still, while the text itself clearly was a review, it was not indicated as such (as it should have been).

Finding

The complaints about the content of the text, the headline, and failure to ask for comment are dismissed.

The fact that the text was not clearly indicated as a review was in breach of Section 7.2 of the Press Code that states, “Comment by the press shall be presented in such manner that it appears clearly that it is comment…” (Emphasis added.)

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of our Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).

The breach of the Press Code as described above is a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

The Mail & Guardian is directed to clarify that the text was a review, and that it was not intended to be presented as news. This clarification, which should be approved by me, should also appear on the website. The text should refer to the complaint lodged with this office and end with the words, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

The headline should reflect the content of the text. A heading such as “Matter of Fact”, or something similar, is not acceptable.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman